Tag Archives: Film History

Four Films About Cassavetes

You think I want to be popular? You think I want them out on video? I want millions of people to see my movies? Why would I? – John Cassavetes

Cassavetes and Rowlands

When I teach film directing I inevitably discuss John Cassavetes at length, usually with regards to collaborating with actors. I prefer to show an interview or documentary to my students as opposed to one of Cassavetes’ own films so that they can hear from him about his process as a filmmaker. The reason why I don’t usually show one of his films is that most of my students have already taken my film analysis course where I show either The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) or Husbands (1970). So the issue isn’t so much their familiarity with Cassavetes’ work so much as it is an issue of familiarizing them with Cassavetes as an artist at work and de facto teacher.

An episode of Cinéastes de notre temps (dir. Hubert Knapp & Andre S. Labarthe, 1968), I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work (dir. Michael Ventura, 1984), Anything For John (dir. Dominique Cazenave & Doug Headline, 1993), and A Constant Forge (dir. Charles Kiselyak, 2000) are the four films about Cassavetes that I choose from for various reasons, though usually the choice is predicated by running time (I may only show an excerpt), the students’ ability to focus, and the students’ own aesthetic interests. Each film has its own merits, each has its own limitations; but I have found all of these films to be indispensable as a teacher and as a filmmaker.

Cinéastes de notre temps (which translates to “filmmakers of our time”) is a series for French television about the cinema; the episode about John Cassavetes can be found as a bonus feature on the Criterion Collection release John Cassavetes: Five Films. This television documentary first introduces the viewer to Cassavetes in 1965 as he is editing Faces (1968) during a break from shooting. In this first section, Cassavetes’ euphoria in the midst of his second independent production after two films for major studios is contagious. It’s all jokes and laughs as he walks through his hand-held shooting style and drives along the Canyon where he lived in LA. The second section, shot in 1968, picks up with Cassavetes at Cannes after screening Faces. Cassavetes’ hair has greyed, his demeanor is relatively withdrawn and his mood somber. This episode of Cinéastes de notre temps epitomizes one of the serious pitfalls of independent production for Cassavetes in how these two halves demonstrate the serious toll that completing Faces has taken, both physically and emotionally. But it is also interesting to hear Cassavetes, before and after, as he discusses the intent of the film. There isn’t a variation in terms of aesthetic goals, but there is a variation in language and conviction. For these reasons I find Cinéastes de notre temps works better as a portrait of the artist rather than a portrait of the artist’s process.

John and Gena
Michael Ventura’s film  I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work is distinct for having been made with Cassavetes’ cooperation during the actual shooting of one of his films, Love Streams (1984). Ventura does not venerate his subject, and this film is all the better for it. Cassavetes can be seen going wild on set directing his wife Gena Rowlands, throwing tantrums at the crew, and espousing some particularly elegant musings on the condition of American cinema in sit-down interviews. Running at just about one hour, I’m Almost Not Crazy is one of the most fascinating authentic portraits of a filmmaker at work that I have ever seen. I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work, like Cinéastes de notre temps, is also available as a special feature on a Criterion release, though this time for Love Streams.

I chanced upon Dominique Cazenave and Doug Headline’s Anything For John on the bonus disc of the Wild Side Video deluxe release of the film Husbands (this is a French release and therefore Region 2). Unlike the two films discussed above, Anything For John was shot after Cassavetes’ death and therefore takes the approach of an oral history. Al Ruban, Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Sam Fuller (a neighbor of Cassavetes apparently) are all interviewed and each sings the praises of Cassavetes. The interviews are intimate and yield their greatest rewards when former co-stars begin to goof around a little, inadvertently shedding some light upon their relationship as collaborators. This becomes even more fascinating if one views one of Cassavetes’ films immediately before watching this documentary. Seeing actors’ spontaneity in performance and then in life can give one a precise idea as to what control Cassavetes exerted as a director.

The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of Charles Kiselyak’s A Constant Forge (which is available in the Criterion Collection’s release John Cassavetes: Five Films). Unlike these other films, A Constant Forge is epic in scale (running at 200 minutes) and much more frank about Cassavetes’ shortcomings as an alcoholic. Like Anything For John, a bulk of A Constant Forge is made up of interviews and film clips. Kiselyak’s film’s most unique attribute is that it incorporates footage of Cassavetes from I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work and Cinéastes de notre temps as well as a voice-over narration of an actor reading some choice quotes from Cassavetes (that can be found in Ray Carney’s excellent though controversial book Cassavetes on Cassavetes) in an attempt to keep Cassavetes’ own voice heard amongst the chorus of interviewees. A Constant Forge’s grand scale allows it to be this inclusive and seemingly definitive, though I would argue it yields fewer rewards overall as a film than the three previously discussed pictures (despite the time it devotes to Cassavetes’ elusive stage works in the 70s and 80s for which I am grateful). The same criticism that is often leveled upon Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes is applicable to A Constant Forge in that while being so inclusive in its texts it misses out on one of the great truths about Cassavetes, and that is, like his filmmaking process, he is a different person everyday, infinitely adaptable. In a book this is an acceptable loss, in my opinion, especially if the book intends to read like a patchwork autobiography. What makes it detrimental to A Constant Forge is that it serves to pinpoint Cassavetes’ appearance in the film to be nothing more than an illusion. Anything For John, on the other hand, employed Cassavetes’ absence rather well, structuring much of the film as a sort of make-shift eulogy where his absence is very much the point.

directing Love Streams in 1984

What all of these films lack is a healthy appreciation for Cassavetes’ early days as an actor in films and television. Only A Constant Forge deals at length with this period, though mostly only with regards to Cassavetes’ work in Martin Ritt’s film Edge Of The City (1957). I would have enjoyed some analysis of Cassavetes’ work as a director on Johnny Staccato (1959) as well as a more in-depth biographical context.

If I had to pick just one of these excellent films to recommend, it would be Michael Ventura’s film. Despite its very vivid and immediate portrait of its subject, Ventura, according to his interview in Anything For John, manages to capture something of the tragedy Cassavetes faced on the set of Love Streams. Cassavetes believed that Love Streams would be his final film, his last statement to the world. This feeling just seems to permeate every aspect of Love Streams and I’m Almost Not Crazy, investing them with a taste of tragedy.

-Robert Curry

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Godard & Ishaghpour: A Review

“Looking at Histoire(s) du cinéma, the first chapter especially, I got the impression there had been three major events in the twentieth century: the Russian revolution, Nazism, and cinema, particularly Hollywood cinema, which is the power of cinema, the plague as you (Jean-Luc Godard) say.” – Youssef Ishaghpour to Godard, Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century

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Jean-Luc Godard may come in and out of fashion, but it seems indisputable that he, more than any other filmmaker, is the most important artist of the cinema in the twentieth century. One doesn’t need to particularly like or enjoy Godard’s work to appreciate its singular accomplishments. In fact, in the book I wish to address, Youssef Ishaghpour himself, despite the high regard in which he holds Godard, often challenges the filmmaker’s own ideas and readings concerning his films. Godard certainly has his fair share of detractors, certainly with concerns towards his latter period, but to summarily dismiss a work because it is difficult or unconventional is more an act of self-betrayal than a critique of a film or filmmaker.

The book in question here is the brilliant Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century (first published in 2000) by Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour. This publication is part of a series titled Talking Images, edited by Yann Perreau, which is primarily interested in investigating the usefulness and purpose of the cinema at the start of the twenty-first century. So it is fitting that the text of Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century, a lengthy conversation between Ishaghpour and Godard followed by an essay by Ishaghpour, should focus on Godard’s mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma.

In Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard employs a variety of avant-garde video tactics (superimposition, text overlays, dubbing, looping, etc.) to create a visual complex that is the equivalent in cinema to what Alfred Döblin and James Joyce achieved in literature. At the center of this complex is Godard himself, and from this center spirals the cinema in a series of rhyming and juxtaposing rhythms whose images are linked by Godard’s own subjective interpretation of his memories of the twentieth century which are, in-turn, embodied on the audio track and in text overlays. This complex yields over its 8 parts and 266 minutes a series of patterns and intersections, both formal, calculated and accidental, that locate a broader sense of purpose to the very design of cinema as a social and political form of art.

From this jumbled description, of what I consider to be Godard’s greatest achievement, above, one can begin to understand how complicated Histoire(s) du cinéma truly is and why it continues to perplex, enrage and enthrall audiences. Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century is the most practical and useful guide one could hope for to dissect Histoire(s) du cinéma. The intimate, conversational quality of the “interview” section of the book gives Godard, by way of Ishaghpour’s insights and careful readings of the film, the opportunity not only to describe some of the specific meanings of certain images in Histoire(s) du cinéma, but to also address his own desired outcome of the project in terms of its spectatorship. This essentially serves to direct the reader’s focus to different elements of the film during different sections, though the conversation never becomes a matter of “mapping out” Godard’s complicated visual and audio complex.

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There is also a casual, somewhat anecdotal quality to Ishaghpour and Godard’s conversation that is likely to be of interest to the viewer who never bothered to look at Godard’s work post-Weekend (1968). For instance, Godard’s interest in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), Orson Welles and his aesthetic relationship to John Ford, Henri Langlois, Jules Michelet, Jean Mitry, Georges Sadoul, Gilles Deleuze and Truffaut are all discussed and will no doubt satisfy the appetites of many a film major.

But to separate one element of the interview from the other is to dispense with the overall purpose of the text as a whole which is to rediscover Godard the filmmaker and critic in his Histoire(s) du cinéma. Ishaghpour’s closing essay, Jean-Luc Godard Cineaste of Modern Life: The Poetic in the Historical, eloquently argues that, with Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard locates the cinema as a means of contesting History/Histoire(s). Ishaghpour very succinctly presents his idea within the wider context implied by Histoire(s) du cinéma, the state of contemporary art, by drawing on a variety of scholarship from Deleuze’s notion of the time-image to Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of montage.

I will say that some of the material in Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century can be a bit forbidding insofar as it references an equally wide variety of texts as it does films (some more obscure than others). If one prefers a less focused study of a single Godard film, or is interested in films from earlier in his career, I would recommend Forever Godard, edited by James Williams and Michael Temple. Forever Godard is a fascinating volume that anthologized a series of essays about the filmmaker on various parts of his career that is fully illustrated with stills from his films (which make this volume a beautiful object as much as a book).

-Robert Curry

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Discoveries

It is relatively easy today to discover a film. It is certainly far easier today than it was when I was growing up. Online streaming platforms such as FilmStruck and Hulu bring a wide variety of titles, some obscure and some not, to curious spectators and cinephiles with far more ease and accessibility than a video store or a library ever did. Yet, somehow, this great abundance and variety becomes prohibitive after a fashion; inundating the viewer with maybe too many options. There is also something to be said about collecting films. Owning a film on DVD or Blu-Ray, possessing an object, gives one a sense of material satisfaction. This satisfaction, when so many things are available in the ether of the internet, is part of the appeal of these formats. One could even say that it is this impulse toward the tangible that has sparked the revitalization of vinyl within the music industry. And similarly to how vinyl records often sound better, a film often looks better on DVD or Blu-Ray. In my own experience I often have found prints of obscure films on different streaming platforms, like Netflix, to be rather poor when I know for a fact that a better print is available.

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There is also the matter of availability. Warner Archives, for instance, has brought out and continues to bring out what seems like a limitless supply of classic Hollywood fare. Most of these films will probably never be popular enough to find a place in the foreseeable future on Netflix or Hulu. So the only way to access these titles is on DVD and Blu-Ray. Of course, this doesn’t even get into films that are available only in other regions. Eureka!, Second Run, BFI, Edition filmmuseum, all release prestigious and scholarly packages of renowned films unavailable in the United States, making their home video releases essential to serious students of film. Ironically, the shift in the home video market, epitomized by the strategies exemplified by Warner Archive, only came about because of the immense popularity of online streaming. That is to say that home video has become a niche market after a fashion.

These circumstances that have made so many films available for study for the first time has such inexhaustible possibilities that it can be overwhelming and often times happens only as a sort of accident. Back in July I finally saw the Norman Foster film Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948), a sort of quickie noir piece that was the first film produced by Burt Lancaster’s Norma Productions (available as a Universal Vault Series DVD release). The opening chase sequence in which Lancaster evades the police on an elaborate expressionist set-piece with all of his athletic prowess was surprising not just for its length, but what evidence it provided of Orson Welles’ influence on his one time protege Norman Foster (Foster was at one time a co-director on Welles’ famous “lost” project It’s All True, directing the “My Friend Bonito” section). One can’t necessarily credit Welles with introducing Foster to the silent German Expressionist films of the twenties, but one can credit Welles with having imbued in Foster a sensibility for the importance of the seen and unseen in a sequence. Kiss The Blood Off My Hands, like Welles’ The Stranger (1946), uses shadow and dramatic angles (high and low) to focus the spectator’s gaze on specific details in a rapid succession of shots. Foster’s employment of Welles’ visual strategy in a run-of-the-mill “quickie”, for my money, positions him in favor of Jess Franco as the “kitsch Welles”. This aesthetic relationship between Welles and Foster was one that, like so many others, I had dismissed after having seen some of Foster’s work for Walt Disney Studios in the fifties. However, after viewing Kiss The Blood Off My Hands I revisited Foster’s most famous film, Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955) and was able to locate shades of Orson Welles yet again, though this time employed toward a more theatrical aesthetic end.

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I also found a trend in later MGM musicals upon revisiting Charles Walter’s Texas Carnival (1951) as a companion film to Mervyn LeRoy’s Lovely To Look At (1952); both available from Warner Archive and both featuring Red Skelton. First it may be helpful to note that the Jerome Kern musical Lovely To Look At was made quickly to cash in on the success of George Sidney’s film of Show Boat the previous year, employing almost all of the same cast but with Jack Cummings producing in place of Arthur Freed (Jack Cummings also produced Texas Carnival and handled a number of MGM’s lower budget musical productions). Both of these films star Howard Keel and each film stages an effective dream sequence around Keel as the romantic leading man. The earlier film, Texas Carnival, locates this dream as a kind of sexual reverie or fantasy that Keel is having about his leading lady, Esther Williams. LeRoy’s camera stays predominantly behind keel, though it concludes with Keel in a profile shot. LeRoy’s motivations for this visual structure are twofold. Firstly, Keel is the lesser star in 1951, and secondly this placement of the camera invites the audience to share and to participate in Keel’s gaze as an apparition of Esther Williams (courtesy of superimposition) swims around his hotel suite. In Lovely To Look At, Keel is the bigger star and has thus graduated to becoming the subject of the underrated Kathryn Grayson’s dream stuff in this film. Here, Grayson finds Keel gradually appearing in four full length mirrors as he serenades her, his voice quadrupling on the soundtrack. The camera sits behind Grayson, and the four Keels, forming an implied triangular formation, frame her. Both sequences, comic in their eccentricity, heartbreaking in their sincerity, prove just how important the commodification of a star was for MGM. Neither scene is important to characterization nor to narrative. The one aim that they prove and satisfy is in selling a star. This tactic, from today’s viewpoint, epitomizes the nostalgia and innocence promised by “classic movies”, thus rendering such scenes more memorable than some of those films’ finer sequences such as Vincente Minnelli’s uncredited climax to Lovely To Look At.

These discoveries may seem inconsequential or even mundane, but they prove that there is still so much to mine in the cinema. I chose these three films for their obscurity because it is in these films which are finally receiving a release, some for the first time ever to home video, that one can find the untold stories of film. The cinema will always be progressive, it will always move forward with hundreds upon hundreds of films completed each and every year, but it is our collective cinematic past, more than our present in this country, that is finally becoming available.

-Robert Curry

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Why Evgeni Bauer?

At the same time that D.W. Griffith was making The Escape (1914) and Home, Sweet Home (1914) in America and Louis Feuillade was making Les Vampires (1915-16) in France, Evgeni Bauer was crafting short, poetic, and elegant features on the nature of human frailty in Russia. Bauer’s output was tremendous in the years 1913 to 1917, with 76 films to his name, making him the most important Russian filmmaker of the Tsarist period. Bauer’s surviving films, 26 in total, have subsequently been restored and three of them have been released through the BFI.

the party sequence

Aesthetically, Bauer’s importance to the development of the cinema is equal to that of D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade. But where Griffith and Feuillade represent developments in montage and visual effects, Bauer’s contribution was far more subtle and nuanced. Bauer took as his narrative subjects stories concerned with memory, loss and mortality. These philosophically minded tropes would be ill suited to the morality narratives and adventure narratives of Griffith and Feuillade. Bauer’s film After Death (1915), based on a novel by Ivan Turgenev, epitomizes the filmmaker’s aesthetic approach to cinema as well as his recurring narrative concerns.

After Death tells the story of Andrei (Vitold Polonsky), a reclusive young man mourning the death of his mother, and a singer/actress named Zoya (Vera Karalli). They meet at a party where each becomes entranced by the other. After recognizing Andrei in attendance at one of her recitals, Zoya arranges a rendezvous with Andrei. Here Andrei rejects her love. Three months later, Zoya has committed suicide, having suffered a broken heart. At this point, Andrei becomes obsessed with Zoya, collecting her possessions and having visions of her.

This rather melodramatic “ghost story” attains its urgency and potency from Bauer’s handling of the story visually. One of the most striking, if not remarkable, sequences in After Death comes at the party where Andrei meets Zoya. This three minute tracking shot follows Andrei as he is introduced to the other guests of the party. Bauer’s camera hovering around Andrei, slowly capturing the details of the party in a sustained wide shot. There isn’t a cut till Andrei has seated himself near Zoya. Here, Bauer cuts to a close-up of Andrei, then of Zoya. Before the moment that Andrei and Zoya lock eyes, Bauer’s long tracking shot establishes Andrei’s isolation, his unease, and his apprehension. With the cut to the close-up, Bauer interrupts these tense emotions with a sudden shift toward romantic and sexual longing.

vision in the wheat field

A second sequence that is remarkable in After Death comes later, once Zoya has died. Bauer constructs a dream sequence on a small soundstage where Andrei and Zoya meet in a field of wheat. The theatricality of the set and the mechanical nature of the blocking give this recurring dream sequence a sense of frightening other-worldliness. The style in this sequence is so at odds with the rest of After Death that it manages to imbue the emotional content of the scenes where Zoya appears to Andrei in his sick bed, which bookend this sequence, with a sense of the threatening nature of death.  Bauer goes further in demonstrating a contrast between the dream world of the dead and that of the living with his choices of tinting the film; color coding it based upon its narrative sections.

Bauer’s cinematic explorations of Russian Romantic Idealism yielded some of the great innovations of the early cinema. The two sequences from his film After Death discussed above offer only a small sampling. The fact that Bauer’s films have an intrinsically ethereal quality to them is what I believe has largely sustained them; allowing an audience 100 years later to access them on their own aesthetic terms.

-Robert Curry

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Runnin’ Wild: A Book Review

Roughly a month ago it was my good fortune to inherit a collection of about 120 books on the subject of Hollywood during its heyday between 1915 and 1960. Many of these books were from the seventies and have long been out of print, so the information and details which they contain have brought me no end of delight (Brendan Gill’s Tallulah is particularly enjoyable). Though, I must admit, I have been rather slow in digesting them all I have already found one biography which I would like to single out.

Clara Bow publicity photograph

There is no doubt David Stenn is a name well-known to enthusiasts of classic Hollywood films. His financing for restorations of the films of Clara Bow, including Mantrap (dir. Victor Fleming, 1926), coupled with his own project/film Girl 27 (2007) has made him indispensable. But Stenn remains best known for his meticulously researched and definitive biographies of Clara Bow and Jean Harlow.

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (first published in 1988) is one of those rare biographies that is overwhelming with information but whose literary style gives it a sense of urgency and modernity. Stenn’s meticulous research gives the reader a tremendous insight into the business affairs of B.P. Schulberg and Paramount, reprinting numerous cables, memos and letters between studio executives, personnel, artists, and Clara Bow herself. Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, like the best Hollywood biographies, succeeds in presenting a star in such detail and with such life that it invariably enhances one’s viewing experience of their films. It is also of note that Clara Bow’s acting style (discussed at great critical length by Stenn), like that of Louise Brooks’, was considerably modern for its period. However, Stenn’s real achievement with this book, and my primary reason for recommending it, is how it rewrites Hollywood history; dispelling long accepted rumors and assumptions.

Stenn goes to great lengths defending Clara Bow from the gossip that arose after 1932; mainly in the form of Kenneth Anger’s notorious Hollywood Babylon (1965) which alleges Clara Bow’s multiple “gang-bangs” with different sports teams. The widely held assumption that Clara Bow was, as a woman waiting for the trolley with me one day put it, a floozy is investigated at length and countered with evidence that paints a portrait of Clara Bow as something more akin to Protofeminist. Sources ranging from telegrams to eye-witness accounts verify that Clara Bow was not a dim-witted nymphomaniac but rather a slightly naive, generous, openly sexual person who always spoke her mind come hell or high water. This also helps illustrate the degree to which Hollywood sought to control their star and also how American culture in the twenties vilified promiscuity, female strength, and sexuality. Stenn’s biography concludes that Clara Bow, given all of the well researched evidence, is a woman who would not change herself to conform to society’s idea of who she should be.

There is also plenty of material in Stenn’s book that undermines the romanticized concept of the flapper of the roaring twenties. Stenn takes his time showing his reader that Elinor Glyn manufactured this romantic notion of the flapper or “It” girl (as Clara Bow was to become known) for the sake of her own financial gain. Stenn makes the case quite effectively that Glyn’s interest in female sexual liberation was self-serving, and Clara Bow’s association with Glyn only helped to typecast and stigmatize her. In this respect Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild serves many of the same motives as Louise Brooks’ remarkable memoir Lulu In Hollywood (1982). Both Stenn and Brooks are fascinated with the hypocrisy of the major studios whose pictures promote the flapper but whose policies and press attack those same ideologies when exhibited by their stars. This more inquisitive line of investigation plants figures such as Louise Brooks and Clara Bow squarely within the camp of early feminists (a trend in biographies of actresses which seems to have begun in the late 1960s).

Call Her Savage (1932)

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild is also a terrific amount of fun. This fun comes from Stenn’s ability to not only endear Clara Bow to his reader, but also in inviting the reader into Clara’s personal life. Often Clara Bow’s life is tragic or harrowing, but it can also be a bit silly. Two of my favorite moments are when Clara Bow out hula dances an intoxicated John Wayne and the fact that one of Clara Bow’s favorite past-times in Hollywood was to roller skate up and down her driveway. After all, it is in the little details that one truly comes to know a person and Stenn keeps them in abundance.

Robert Curry

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Detroit

“Nervous breakdowns/Crowd the calendar of freedom/When reality is forced upon the nonbeliever’s ego plan/Criticizers/From the hanging cliffs of plenty/Laugh to see the fall of those/Who would remain in honest lands/Clairvoyants strive to see/The plans of those who need to know/What lies beyond the seeing tree of life” – Eugene McDaniels, Unspoken Dreams Of Light, from the album Outlaw, 1970

 DETROIT

When I saw Detroit last Tuesday, I believe that I was fortunate enough to have a wholly unique viewing experience. I assume that unlike most white male viewers I had a special “tour guide” in the form of a running commentary from two elderly Black women seated directly behind me. In many respects this commentary provided a good deal that the film did not. Though these two women restricted most of their commentary to the fashions of 1967, their personal reminisces that accompanied these asides were highly enlightening. The Black Culture of 1967 that was too elusive in Detroit became almost tangible to me thanks to my fellow spectators. Now I cannot imagine making it through the entire film without them.

The fact that the cultural context for Detroit came not from the film itself but from my fellow spectators indicates the primary failure of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s film. A film which sets as its objective the “education” of an audience should be more inclusive, prioritizing the context of its protagonists so that, from the vantage point of 2017, we may understand and even recognize the dramatic stakes proposed by the film. A recent publication in the Huffington Post, ‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible And Dangerous Movie This Year  by Jeanne Theoharis, Mary Phillips, and Say Burgin, points to some of the major omissions of historical events as well as the political ramifications of said inclusions and omissions.

This half-hearted approach to Black Culture in a film made by white filmmakers condemning racism squarely places Detroit within the tradition of Richard Brooks’ or Stanley Kramer’s civil rights oriented films of the fifties and sixties. Kramer’s use of caricature, narrative cliché, and preachy dialogue seems out-of-place in a film of 2017; it may even be dangerous. When Stanley Kramer was making his films Oscar Micheaux had already completed more than two dozen films that had never been released widely to white audiences (J. Hoberman’s excellent essay on Micheaux is collected in his book Vulgar Modernism). Black filmmakers before 1970 were almost exclusively left to exhibit their films on a regional level (New York based filmmakers screened their work there, Memphis filmmakers screened their films there, etc). The segregation of American cinema in the fifties and sixties and even before is what makes Kramer’s films such important political documents. In other words, Kramer’s voice was one of the few audiences all over the U.S. heard at the cinemas on the subject of civil rights. Today Black filmmakers have found a more general mainstream acceptance, so issues of racism in this country do not have to wait for a “white savior” like Stanley Kramer to stick up for them. It is almost impossible to imagine what a filmmaker like Oscar Micheaux would have been capable of if he had had the opportunities of Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins or Steve McQueen.

The films that have endured by white and black filmmakers alike about America’s racial conflict are the ones that have not sought to explicitly propagate one agenda over another. Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994), John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson (2006), and Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy (2012) and The Butler (2015) all take an equally compassionate view of their characters regardless of race; prioritizing character over politics and thus finding something closer to the truth with regards as to how race affects human beings on an acutely personal level.

Detroit does not offer viewers human beings, only character types and sketches, distilling the life out of its characters both Black and White. This has the unusual effect of placing Detroit more in line, in terms of genre, with the home invasion thriller than with the historical drama. Detroit, like any good exploitation film, favors the spectacle of violence, revelling like a sadist in scenes of torture and depravity. The only “message” this tactic can offer viewers and the only understanding of the event in our history Detroit seems ready to share is that racism is violent and bad. This juvenile interpretation of these historical events both demeans its survivors as well as leaves viewers ill-equipped to address this kind of racial violence after seeing the film.

Detroit

For myself personally, the truly frightening aspect of racism is that it can be found anywhere. People and co-workers one may assume one knows could in fact harbor some of the most revolting kinds of racism. Costa-Gravas’ film Betrayed (1988) takes this as its thesis, constructing around this idea a uniquely disconcerting thriller. However, this kind of terror can only be made manifest on the screen if the film attempts to construct actual characters.

Bigelow and Boal have most certainly accomplished the antithesis of their goal. Detroit does not work as a film about the Detroit race riots of 1967. Detroit is an exploitation film, dressed up with a major budget and sold as a quasi “historical revelation”. Its great accomplishment will be to offend, and in so doing prove just how out of touch White Hollywood still is with the problems of Black America today and yesterday.

-Robert Curry

 

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A Spectacle Of War

“Of course, you know this means war!” – Groucho Marx, A Night At The Opera, 1935

Dunkirk

I don’t particularly love war films as a genre. I find most of them to be either overly sentimental, propagandist, violently exploitative, or just racist. For me the first really good and also fascinating war film is  Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919). The other war films (I’m finding this genre label a bit too loose and not very helpful) that have expressed anything of merit have all appeared to have taken something from Gance, even if it is just a shared impulse. The “good” war films, in my opinion, all cherish human life with a capacity that a blockbuster production is incapable of while also posing questions regarding the necessity of violence and the nature of violence as spectacle. The more popular route has always been more propagandist and celebratory of the machismo of war while simultaneously pushing the political agenda of a current regime. That’s precisely why masterpieces such as Chris Marker’s omnibus film Far From Vietnam (1967), Miklós Jancsó’s The Red And The White (1967) and Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1984) remain elusive to most American audiences during a time when they are, perhaps, needed the most. But playing in cinemas today are two films who navigate these concerns with war in different ways that make them as illuminating with regards to their subject while also functioning as a sort of litmus test for the ideologies of this moment in time. The films are War For The Planet Of The Apes and Dunkirk.

Matt Reeves’ War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017) represents a pastiche that apes (pun intended) from such distinguished and diverse films as John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) to cite only the most obvious examples. The culmination of these narrative elements having been reappropriated and strewn together in a patchwork is not necessarily that interesting in so far as imbuing a new degree of emotional response to familiar stimuli, but rather in War For The Planet Of The Apes’ capacity to examine the principles of these narrative tropes that have allowed them to work in different iterations over many decades by simply rearranging and aligning them within a linear narrative construct. Ironically, the detachment required by such an investigation derives from the computer generated apes themselves (they represent a different though just as plastic and campy manifestation as the costumes worn by actors during the original franchise from the late sixties into the seventies).

War For The Planet Of The Apes exists in a kind of limbo in American mainstream cinema. This represents an alternative reading of War For The Planet Of The Apes. Reeves has still delivered an overwhelming spectacle of violence, so it isn’t very likely that many viewers will be watching the film for its subtle genre deconstruction. Due to its blockbuster status, critical discourse around War For The Planet Of The Apes will be miniscule while audiences will not likely feel encouraged to enter into an analytical dialogue with the film. War For The Planet Of The Apes, as campy as it is, successfully straddles the line which is so sacred in American cinema; the one between art and entertainment (intellectual vs. spectacle). The problem here is that there shouldn’t be any segregation.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is Christopher Nolan. His films have consistently pandered to artistic recognition while never truly accomplishing anything worthwhile or remotely interesting as far as I can see. Dunkirk could have potentially demonstrated the various sensations of duration born out of a variety of duress in its hodge-podge semi-linear structure. However, Nolan consistently assumes that his audience suffers from some kind of mental incapacity and chose to label these three experiences of duration, thus negating the final reveal that would have lent Dunkirk emotional power. Nolan’s approach to form via these labels (The Mole, The Sea, and The Air) also functions to deny the film any interesting exchange between the images within the three different timelines as he cuts back and forth between them.

Thus Dunkirk is the antithesis of War For The Planet Of The Apes in that it aspires to art and provides only spectacle. The spectacle itself is not even that rewarding for that matter. As I sat in the theater watching Dunkirk I kept thinking of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk, like A Bridge Too Far, trades on its roster of celebrities and plethora of special effects to pull at the heart-strings of its audience. This strategy, while good in theory, doesn’t allow for ample character development, thus making it difficult for the audience to have anything more than a passing superficial reaction to the film. The only time Dunkirk comes close to achieving any real characterization is during Mark Rylance’s scenes. Rylance brings a subtlety and a sense of experience to his role as Mr. Dawson that renders his character with more depth and ambiguity than could be mustered by the rest of the film’s cast.

What Dunkirk and War For The Planet Of The Apes have in common is what they prove, each in their own way. These two films indicate that a majority of the movie going public see war and accept war purely as a spectacle, as a means for escape. This probably has as much to do with how these films are sold and marketed as with the way which wars are treated by journalists and the media in this country. Arguably, as the images of Vietnam on the 5 o’clock news fade from our national consciousness, so does our ability as a nation to treat war on film as anything other than “pulp”. I doubt that it is any coincidence that a majority of the most worthwhile films about war I have seen were made during the Vietnam conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

-Robert Curry

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